Can China Save the Amur Tiger?

The Siberian Tiger Project has accumulated a rich database on the different habitat needs of tiger prey species—too rich, in truth, to support the idea that Miquelle is simply following an outdated environmental paradigm. He acknowledges, for instance, that “Sika deer and roe deer are associated with broken forests/grassland/agricultural complexes,” so the treatments being proposed by the F&ES team “would presumably help them.” But red deer are a more important prey for tigers, and for them, says Miquelle, “Mature oak and Korean pine forests are needed—not thinned forests and savannas.” 

Pending the outcome of pilot studies, the World Bank team endorsed “targeted measures to help create a more diversified and interlaced forest structure,” along the lines proposed by the F&ES team.

The issue may not be the paradigm itself but skepticism that China can bring off an active management regimen in a way that actually benefits wildlife. Miquelle worries, for instance, that new openings in the forest will create habitat not for deer but for domestic livestock. Even in Hunchun Tiger Leopard Reserve, local people graze their cattle “right up to the border with Russia.” And if officials are already failing to keep livestock out of a relatively small protected area, then “how are you going to keep cattle out of a multiple-use forest? In such a scenario, you will be investing millions to improve grazing conditions for domestic livestock.”

But to Oliver, this is like saying: “We don’t believe the decision-makers can do it right, so we’ll tell them it is not scientifically sound to do.”

What China Could Do

What’s the likely outcome of the dispute? Carter Brandon, the World Bank’s lead environmental specialist in Beijing, points out that the disagreement thus far has consisted of dueling emails, a medium notoriously prone to conflict and miscommunication. “If they were in the same room and stepped down from the level of general principles, they might well agree,” he says. Even in the limited context of emailing, Oliver recently acknowledged that Miquelle is “right that nothing will work if poaching and snares are not controlled.” 

China is likely to invest millions in its northeastern forests regardless of such disagreements among outside experts. Its booming economy is woefully short on timber, putting heavy pressure on forests elsewhere in Asia. It’s also increasingly aware of how that affects its reputation abroad. “The concerns of those global environmentalists who watch China have shifted from the decline in China’s natural forests to China’s impact on the eroding natural forests in places like Indonesia and Russian Siberia,” a Chinese forestry research team recently reported. Revitalizing domestic forests is already a national priority and, in the northeastern forests, the report concluded that “a sustainable expansion in harvests, more than three times the current level, is not unreasonable.” The likelihood of that expansion will make the search for common ground on behalf of the Amur tiger more urgent. 

In May, Brandon led a World Bank reconnaissance mission in Manchuria to help develop an Amur tiger recovery plan. It proposed an expansion of snare removal programs and antipoaching patrols, limits on access to domestic livestock and an end to the harvest of nontimber forest products like Korean pine nuts. Pending the outcome of pilot studies, the World Bank team also endorsed “targeted measures to help create a more diversified and interlaced forest structure,” along the lines proposed by the F&ES team, and “minor resettlement” of people now living in the area. Finally, the team recommended vastly increasing the area of potential tiger habitat, up to as much as 19,300 square miles (50,000 square kilometers)—three times the size of the state of Connecticut. “The objective would be to establish China as a world leader in tiger conservation.”

Brandon says the scale of these proposed changes is in line with forestry and conservation projects already being undertaken elsewhere in China. His team loosely estimated the cost of Amur tiger recovery and forestry improvements at between $50 million and $100 million over five years. Funding would come in the form of grants from the Global Environment Facility, an international partnership that pays for biodiversity and other improvements in areas of global biological importance, and World Bank loans.

At present, Brandon says, northeastern China is “a forestry slum,” good for neither wildlife nor people. Many of its residents are former forestry employees who have no work, because the damaged forests no longer produce any economically valuable timber. They’re trapped, along with the remaining tigers, in a vicious circle, with hungry human residents going into the forest to steal ungulates from tigers, and starving tigers coming into agricultural areas to steal livestock from humans. Many families “are apparently willing to move,” according to the World Bank team, making relocation less problematic. 

Changing the culture of the northeastern forests, says Brandon, will entail “social and ecological disruption—no, that’s too strong. Let’s say ‘analysis and change.’” But by investing in sustainable methods now, China could position the northeastern forests to produce “a reasonable rate of return” beginning in 50 years and continuing permanently thereafter. It’s a long time horizon. But “what they have now,” he says, “is worthless.” What they could have instead is a huge forest with a few protected areas surrounded by a mixed-use landscape “that can support both sustainable forestry production and tiger habitat.”

What they could also have, where India and other Asian nations have failed, is the right to claim that China saved the tiger.

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